Are dads too lazy around the house?

3 June 2017

A comic strip by a French cartoonist, showing how mothers bear the ‘mental load’ of running the household, went viral last week.

The cartoon by ‘Emma’, entitled ‘You should’ve asked’, seems to have chimed with many thousands of parents within and beyond the UK, and the central concept – the frazzled mum juggling paid work with taking the lead on caregiving and housework at home – is one most of us can recognise.

On Friday we were invited to discuss the cartoon, along with its creator, by BBC World News – the BBC’s overseas new channel. You can watch the discussion below.

Here’s a link to the cartoon in full.

And here’s a quick summary of some key elements of our ‘take’ on it:

  • Many parents will recognise the imbalance identified and portrayed in Emma’s work – lots of us are shocked at finding ourselves slotting into ‘traditional’ gendered roles and responsibilities when our children are small.
  • It’s important that we fight this, both because mothers and fathers don’t want things to be this way, and because children who grow up with happy parents who are equally skilled at hands-on caregiving, and are good at co-parenting, do really well in life.
  • This is not about dads being lazy – it’s about men and women being differentially positioned towards caregiving/housework vs earning. Time-use research suggests that mums and dads with dependent children spend roughly equal amounts of time on caregiving and earning combined. What we need to do is shift the balance and allow parents more choice over who does what.
  • There is a lot that governments can do to create a more level playing field, including tackling the gender pay gap, insisting on maternity services that see dads and mums as equal partners in parenting, and creating a modern, fit-for-purpose parenting leave system, unlike the current one – which is extremely ‘maternalist’. Employers can also help.
  • The first year is crucial: by the time mums have spent a substantial amount of time off doing ‘solo’ caregiving, without dads taking a similar level of responsibility, it’s too late – mums are by then the ‘experts’, and highly likely to take on (and retain) the ‘mental load’.
  • Parents themselves may need to adjust their attitudes and behaviours. Dads may need to ‘step up’ by ‘coming out’ as fathers in the workplace and fighting for a work-life balance that gives them space to be the great hands-on dads they really want to be. Mums may need to ‘step back’ as lead parent, in order to give dad space to practise the hands-on skills and mentality required to be an equal partner in the parenting work.
  • Both parents need to open up and share their fears, ideals and expectations around earning and caring, ideally before becoming pregnant. Both also need to think carefully about how they want to bring up their boys and girls, so as to protect the future generation from the same gendered assumptions that can help shape our behaviour as adults.

The FI offers a range of workplace seminars to help employees think through these kinds of issues, including one called Who Does What? Renegotiating the Domestic Contract. Find out more here.

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